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Altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self interest. Auguste Comte's version of altruism calls for living for the sake of others. One who holds to either of these ethics is known as an "altruist."

The ethical doctrine of altruism has also been called the ethic of altruism, moralistic altruism, and ethical altruism.

The word "altruism" (French, altruisme, from autrui: "other people", derived from Latin alter: "other") was coined by Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism, in order to describe the ethical doctrine he supported. He believed that individuals had a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others. Comte says, in his Catechisme Positiviste, that "[the] social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service.... This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely." [1]

The Catholic Encyclopedia says that for Comte's altruism, "The first principle of the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts." [2] Author Gabriel Moran, (professor in the department of Humanities and the Social Sciences, New York University) says "The law and duty of life in altruism [for Comte] was summed up in the phrase: Live for others." [3]

Various philosophers define the doctrine in various ways, but all definitions generally revolve around a moral obligation to benefit others or the pronouncement of moral value in serving others rather than oneself. Philosopher C.D. Broad defines altruism as "the doctrine that each of us has a special obligation to benefit others." [4] Philosopher W.G. Maclagan defines it as "a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows...Altruism is to...maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue." [5]

As consequentialist ethics[]

Altruism is often seen as a form of consequentialism, as it indicates that an action is ethically right if it brings good consequences to others. James Fisher and Bradley Dowdwen, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, states the altruist dictum as: "An action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except the agent." Altruism may be seen as similar to utilitarianism, however an essential difference is that the latter prescribes acts that maximize good consequences for all of society, while altruism prescribes maximizing good consequences for everyone except the actor.

Criticism of the doctrine[]

Friedrich Nietzsche held that the idea that it is virtuous to treat others more important than oneself is degrading and demeaning to the self. He also believed in the idea that others have a higher value than oneself hinders the individual's pursuit of self-development, excellence, and creativity. [6] For Nietzsche altruistic love was fabricated by the weak for the weak. It masks self-poisoning resentment about individual and collective powerlessness. Critics like Roderick Hindery respond that Nietzsche's own assumptions about domination by self-interest and the "will to power" are gratuitous and ideological.

David Kelley, discussing the views of Ayn Rand, holds that "there is no rational ground for asserting that sacrificing yourself in order to serve others is morally superior to pursuing your own (long-term, rational) self-interest. Altruism ultimately depends on non-rational 'rationales,' on mysticism in some form..." Furthermore, he holds that there is a danger of the state enforcing that moral ideal: "If self-sacrifice is an ideal - if service to others is the highest, most honorable course of action - why not force people to act accordingly?" He believes this can ultimately result in the state forcing everyone into a collectivist political system. [7] Rand does not believe that altruistic acts are themselves evil; rather, she believes that a doctrine that regards self-sacrifice to be virtuous is wrong. She sees the promotion and acceptance of the ethical doctrine as being counter to the best interests of the individual and degrading to the pursuit of self-interest.

See also[]


  1. ^ , Comte, August. Catechisme positiviste (1852) or Catechism of Positivism, tr. R. Congreve, (London: Kegan Paul, 1891)
  2. ^  Catholic Encylopedia entry on altruism
  3. ^  Moran, Gabriel Christian Religion and National Interests
  4. ^  Cheney, D. R. (Editor), Broad's critical essays in moral philosophy (pp. 283-301). London: Allen & Unwin.
  5. ^  Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954): pp 109-110.
  6. ^  Leiter, Brian Nietzsche's Moral and Political Philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004)

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